All good parents put a priority on making memories with their kids. “Remember the time when...” is a staple of family get-togethers. As homeschoolers we are concerned with making memories of another type too: things like “three plus eight is eleven” and how you spell “should.” Here are some ways to increase the likelihood that your child’s lessons will stick.
Of course we know that if a child is tired or hungry he’s not going to be thinking well. Learning takes real mental energy – though it is only two percent of your body weight, your brain requires twenty percent of your total blood flow to keep it going. Concentrating is easier after a period of physical exercise has raised the heart rate and increased the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. Stress levels are also an important factor: a little bit causes the brain to be alert; too much causes it to shut down to any further learning. If your child is anxious about something, he’s not going to retain his grammar lesson well. On the other hand, if he’s feeling apathetic about life at that moment, sometimes a little peer pressure or a good challenge can help wake up his brain. If your child isn’t in a good state for learning, there is no more important goal than to help him get there.
In order for the brain to send information through short-term memory, process it in working memory, and store it in long-term memory, the nerve signals must pass many times through the limbic system of the brain, which controls emotion. Each memory that you have is connected in a large or small way with a positive or negative emotion. As Stanley Schmidt, author of the Life of Fred math series puts it: “How often would a man say to a woman, ‘When I asked you to marry me yesterday, I can't remember what your answer was’? Never.” In other words, we remember the things that we are interested in, and we’re interested in what we perceive as being important to our happiness. Helping your child to associate “happiness” with “learning” can be as simple as making a game out of his math facts, adding “fun factor” to a history lesson by having the kids act out the scene, or saying, “Won’t grandma love to see how well you are writing today?” Aiding a child in pursuing an interest that he already has is the easiest and most natural method of teaching, but if you despair that he’ll ever be interested in improving his spelling, linking it with his passion can be an effective way to get the “positive vibes” flowing. How many of his spelling words can he put into a sentence about dinosaurs?
We know about the importance of enlisting as many of our child’s five senses as possible in his learning. We also know the effectiveness of using large muscle activities like bouncing a ball to help learn things like math facts. Two other techniques that are very effective at getting a child to focus on the matter at hand are helping him learn to use his “mind’s eye” and his “mind’s voice.” The former, also known as the visuospatial sketchpad or mental chalkboard, is naturally used by young children, whose verbal skills are still developing, to recall people, places, and things. But children who have graduated from relying on it can be taught to use it intentionally: “In this problem twelve is divided by four, so imagine twelve oranges in a bowl on a purple tablecloth. Now put them into four rows. How many are in each row?” Using the imagination to understand the process of division is a stepping stone between manipulating real objects and doing math with symbols only. The “mind’s eye” can help children with things like spelling and composing original stories as they “see” how it should look or what is going on.
Children gradually transition from relying on pictures to relying on words for memory. Around the age of seven they begin to mentally rehearse things that they need to maintain in their short term memory long enough to get them into their working memory. Silent inner speech is a fundamental skill that aids in everything from academics to planning tasks to impulse control, but some children are much slower than others to recognize and use their “mind’s voice.” As parents we can aid the development of this skill by modeling it. “First we are going to put in the flour – one, two cups – then we will add the salt....” “When I get angry with someone, I try to think about why that person did what he did....”
I sometimes have the tendency to bombard children with too much too fast – both in my homeschooling and my calling as Primary music leader. But the “drinking from the fire hose” method does not work. Interval learning is vastly more effective. Having a child go for a bike ride or do a simple, repetitive task like folding laundry in between his heavier subjects allows the brain to mull over the new information just acquired. Reprocessing the information unconsciously, along with recalling it consciously several times in the hours to days after it was learned, allows it to have a firm seat in the long-term memory.
Memory is stored in multiple places throughout the brain, and retrieval of it can be tricky – even subjects as closely related as subtraction and multiplication are located in different areas. As we gain an appreciation for the complexity of the developing brain, we are better prepared to work with our child where they are while aiding them to grow toward their potential.